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Celestial Season

On winter's clear nights, a desert B&B for those seeking stars in their eyes

March 05, 2000|GERALD HERTER | Gerald Herter is president of Sterman, Higashi & Herter, an accounting and consulting firm in Tustin

BENSON, Ariz. — "There's a black spot on Jupiter!" exclaimed an amateur astronomer, focusing her telescope skyward.

"It must be dust on your lens. Let me look through the Newtonian telescope," a fellow enthusiast retorted. The 14 1/2-inch Newtonian reflector telescope was rotated toward the heavens. A moment later he shouted: "You're right. I see the same speck on my scope. Check the charts."

After a scramble to the celestial maps, a cheer went up among the dozen people gathered in the room as it became clear that the dot was actually the shadow of the moon Europa passing in front of Jupiter. My wife, Loretta, and I smiled at each other, bemused at the hoopla over a speck.

We were standing on the rooftop observatory at Skywatcher's Inn, a four-room inn with a 14-foot silver dome. It's located on a remote hilltop three miles southeast of Benson, about an hour's drive south of Tucson.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday March 12, 2000 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 6 Travel Desk 2 inches; 45 words Type of Material: Correction
Arizona--Due to a reporting error, the original purpose of the Copper Queen Hotel in Bisbee, Ariz., was misstated in a Weekend Escape article ("Celestial Season," March 5). The hotel was built at the turn of the century to serve executives of the Copper Queen Mining Co., not the Lavender Pit Mine, which opened in the 1950s.

We found out about the inn several months ago when we were planning a weekend adventure in Arizona. Loretta spotted a tiny ad for the inn in Earth magazine. Founded by a Tucson pathologist whose astronomy hobby got out of hand, Skywatcher's Inn seemed like a good place to ground ourselves in the peace of Arizona's Sonoran Desert and study the universe above. Neither of us knew much about astronomy, but that didn't intimidate us.

Friday morning we started the nine-hour drive from our home in Southern California, stopping in Phoenix to pick up my sister Karen, who lives there, and a niece, Karen Michelle, who was visiting from Delaware. We arrived at the inn, a ranch-style stucco structure, late in the afternoon. Our hostess, Cleo Douglass, greeted us warmly and set out a plate of chocolate chip cookies. She asked when we wanted breakfast and gave us a tour of the inn and an overview of its 65-acre grounds bordering the San Pedro River before showing us our rooms.

The rooms, with private baths, were individually decorated. Loretta and I had the Garden Room, which had flower-print draperies and bedspread and garden view. Karen and Karen Michelle settled into the Galaxy Room, with a white domed ceiling, which doubles as a planetarium for stargazing lessons on cloudy days, Douglass told us. We peeked into the Egyptian Room. For $110 a night, it contained a stunning, marble-lined Jacuzzi and a faux Egyptian armoire.

The inn was like an elegantly decorated home. Loretta and I settled into plush white sofas facing a picture window in the living room and whiled away some daylight hours watching cows and horses at the base of the scrub-covered hill. Ducks skimmed across a large tree-lined pond, with a gazebo-covered dock and a paddle boat for guests to use. We enjoyed the peace of the desert, with no tall buildings or glaring neon in sight.

"Be sure to have dinner early," Douglass advised us, "so we can start your astronomy lesson by 6:30, before the moon rises."

We had been at the inn only a couple of hours, but the four of us were already caught up in the thrill of discovery as we gathered with a few local astronomers and other guests in the rooftop Vega-Bray Observatory. The observatory, in a large room with a roof that slides open to reveal the sky, contains eight large telescopes ranging from a 6-inch refractor to a 14 1/2-inch reflector. At one end, in a separate chamber, is the prize: a revolving dome housing a 20-inch computerized Maksutov telescope.

Our beginner's astronomy lesson, which we'd arranged for an extra $85 (we had the class to ourselves) when we reserved our room, was taught by Daniel Manrieque, an amateur astronomer from Argentina. The inn hires both amateur and professional astronomers from Tucson to give lessons.

Manrieque began by explaining the basics of the solar system. He showed how to recognize prominent stars and constellations, which helped when we used the various telescopes to view planets, star clusters and nebulae.

Midway through our lesson, Dr. Eduardo Vega, Skywatcher's owner, emerged from the domed chamber and invited us to peek through the Maksutov scope.

There shone Saturn, rings and all. I stood there in awe. I had seen pictures of the sixth planet from the sun in books but now marveled at seeing the pale gold sphere directly in the heavens. Considering that Saturn is nearly 800 million miles from Earth, I was amazed at its clarity. (October through April, when the Arizona nights are at their clearest, is the best time for sky-watching.)

Vega, along with Max Bray, a telescope-maker from Phoenix, started building the observatory 10 years ago to satisfy a burgeoning astronomy habit. Soon after it was finished, Vega said, astronomy buffs came for a look, so he added an inn to the observatory.

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